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Unsportsmanlike Conduct 

The chaotic, unsuccessful, and utterly charming first year of the San Francisco Tsunami of the Women's American Football League

Wednesday, Jan 23 2002
Two lines of women face each other on the field of Berkeley's Grove Street Park, the San Francisco Tsunami's third practice field in as many months. Securing a football field in San Francisco is kind of like finding a vacant apartment during the dot-com boom: There's significantly more demand than real estate.

Then again, it's been raining for almost a month. And most Bay Area cities have tight rules around playing football on wet fields. And because almost all the Tsunami players have day jobs, they have to practice in the evening, which calls for a lighted field. So the Tsunamis have moved like sports gypsies from one practice field to the next.

Now, in early December, halfway through the season, the team, one of 17 in the fledgling Women's American Football League, is still trying to learn how to tackle properly. With each toot of the whistle, one woman from the head of each line runs toward the other, imitating the beginnings of a tackle.

"Keep your head up and run through," the coach tells them.

A pair of women smack pads. From afar, the drill resembles a violent line dance.

"Did you hear how that sounds? You want to hit and lift up. Hit and lift up. ... Lock your arms around the other player."

Most of the Tsunami players are athletes of some kind, but only a couple have had the chance to learn the fundamentals of tackle football, because there simply are no college or high school programs from which to draw players. "I learned how to throw and catch and run as a kid," explains Susan Wheeler, a 28-year-old software product manager who lives in San Jose and has played softball and flag football. "This is, like, "What is the proper way to tackle?' I didn't learn that particular aspect. I'm finding that there's so much that I didn't know."

A whistle blows on the field to focus attention on an important matter. "Who needs a ride to Sacramento?" the coach asks, referring to the location of the Tsunamis' next game. Names are quickly jotted down on a clipboard, and the tackle clinic continues. A few yards away, quarterbacks throw footballs to receivers running patterns; about one in three practice passes is completed.

Women have been playing tackle football in one form or another since the 1920s, though early teams played mainly as halftime entertainment for their male counterparts in the National Football League. More serious professional leagues came and went through the next three decades, all plagued by financial problems.

Perhaps bolstered by the success of women's professional basketball and soccer teams, football again took an upswing in 1999 with a tour that kicked off a new Women's Professional Football League. By the second season, however, internal turmoil and financial squabbles had once again claimed the sport, and there were only a handful of teams left.

In 2000, Carter Turner, a WPFL founder, split with his partners and headed to Florida to form the Women's American Football League. The league's 17 teams are divided into regions in Pacific and Atlantic conferences; the winners of those conferences will play a championship game in San Diego in February. The Tsunamis, who play in a division with the Oakland Banshees and the Sacramento Sirens, have yet to win a game.

It would be a grave understatement to say that San Francisco has not embraced its women's football team. Much of San Francisco doesn't even know there is a team. Home games each draw only about 100 people, most connected in some way to players. "San Francisco doesn't know us because we haven't introduced ourselves," says Tsunami Marketing Director Dawna Williams.

With no national sponsor and little seed money from the fledgling league, franchise owners are pretty much on their own to fund their teams. What money there is pays for necessities -- uniforms, officials, stadium rent, and the like -- rather than the relative luxury of advertising.

The price of a WAFL franchise is about $20,000, but, realistically, owners estimate that it costs about $100,000 to get through the first year. Everyone in the WAFL, from coaches to players, is paid through profit-sharing. With San Francisco's level of attendance, of course, there's no profit to share.

In fact, the Tsunamis are perpetually on the verge of breaking into the win column and, simultaneously, falling apart entirely.

The Tsunamis got off to a late start when owner (and player) Wendy Brown took on the franchise, almost as an afterthought, late in spring, after a deal for the Sacramento team went awry. With a few exceptions, the Tsunami roster has been filled via a revolving door; mainly, women have showed up at a practice after hearing something about women's football or stumbling onto the team's Web site and seeing that the Tsunamis wanted players. The scramble for players, staff, equipment, and a practice field has lasted nearly all season. Oakland and Sacramento had full rosters by the end of the summer, and while other WAFL teams were in training camp, San Francisco was still looking for a coach.

If the WAFL is A League of Their Own, the San Francisco Tsunamis are The Replacements. Individually, the players are talented, driven, and passionate. Collectively, they're wildly dysfunctional. The coaching staff joined only a couple of weeks before the first game of the season, so the team essentially missed training camp. Then the relationship between owner and coach became so turbulent that Head Coach Alonzo Carter quit before the season ended.

By the middle of the season, the Tsunami's all-volunteer management had adopted a phrase to explain away the near-constant chaos: "This is a baseline year."

On a crisp December morning, sitting in a booth at an International House of Pancakes in Sacramento near her home and work (she sells women's clothing at Denio's Farmer's Market and Auction in Roseville), Wendy Brown muses on her athletic career and the problems facing her football team.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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